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Dingos, Names and B. Wonger
13 December 2001

HAY, HELL AND BOOLIGAL
24 December 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

" ...these people had enormous history together, [each with] his own mythology, his own story. But most of those peoples’ traditional story telling had eroded, eroded to such an extent that there is barely a record."

 

 

 

 

Design : Feature graphic
Dingoes, Names and B. Wongar

B Wongar is a unique figure in Australian literature. A Serbian émigré (called Sreten Bozic), he came to Australia in 1960 and, as B. Wongar, published novels, short stories and poems dealing with the relationship between black and white Australians. Widely published overseas, Wongar has been translated into many languages. Yet in Australia he's virtually unknown and his titles 'The Track to Bralgu', 'Walg' and 'Karan' are almost unheard of in this country.

He spoke about his literary career with Jan Wositzky, for Radio National's 'Books and Writing' program.


 

Wongar with his dingo Maru in 1987

Wongar with his dingo Maru in 1987

He's won many awards including the American Library Association Award in 1982 and the Pen International Award in 1986. In 1997 he won an emeritus award from the Literature Fund of the Australian Council for an outstanding contribution to Australian literature. His award was met with silence. The only people who attended the presentation were Tom Shapcott, poet Judith Rodriguez, and a representative from the Australia Council.

B. Wongar has a new book, an autobiography titled 'Dingoes Den'. Jan Wositzky started the interview by reminding B. Wongar of the controversy surrounding his literary career, revolving around the old line from Shakespeare - what's in a name? What's his name all about?

WONGAR:
The Dingos Den CoverB. Wongar is an Aboriginal word, the name given to me by the people that I knew there and come into relation. The name actually means 'the messenger'; it's used in the mythology of East Arnhem Land and it means a person who comes from the outside world. In an Aboriginal sense that outside world was a spirit world or the animal world i.e., where the dead go and [the Wongar] brings them messages from time to time. I associated with that word and the people used it. I acquired that name more or less by accident which I explain in my autobiography, it wasn't by virtue of my doing.

I used to sneak in and out of [the] Aboriginal reserve and there had a relation[ship] with the local people. To go there one needed a permit and I never was successful in obtaining the permit. One day there was a Supervisor was coming to the location [in the reserve] that I was and there was no way of of sneaking out. I knew that I could be put in a serious situation. So I lay down and one of the local men started singing over me. My skin was sunburned by that time but my colour was [still] white because of the dust. So the men were singing over me and they were drawing some dust and everything and trying to heal me. The Superintendent asked them who I am -- he had obviously picked up that I'm wasn't local -- and they said that I'm Wongar or from Wongar, meaning I'm from the spirit world. The supervisor, before he left, said, "See that he goes back to his mob", so after he left the Aborigines killed themselves laughing and the name stuck.

WOSITZKY:
Is there a double entendre because as it also means ‘outsider’ -- you're a Serbian émigré to Australia, does it refer to that as well?

WONGAR:
Yes I suppose if you're seen as an outsider, and the fact that it would be very difficult to use my Serbian name for those poor men out in the bush. The fact that [Wongar] was the name they gave me somehow it sticks to their minds much easier and they probably prefer it that way. So I did not want to disrupt their concept of me of whatever they have.

WOSITZKY:
And the ‘B.’ part? B. Wongar, what ...?

WONGAR:
B. was added because my original surname is Bozic so if I was signing I just would put probably Bozic - Wongar, use that as a double barrel name.

WOSITZKY:
So you say it wasn't because of the name, but you have been attacked over the years and accused of 'doing a Helen Demidenko' and passing yourself off as an Aboriginal. Is that something you had to contend with?

WONGAR:
That went back to receiving that award and no one came. The time when I got my ‘nuclear trilogy’, which was actually pioneering writing of that type about that topic and dealt with nuclear testing, stolen generation, land rights and so on. Now those books were officially launched by the Aboriginal Research Centre. The director at that time was Eva Fese and she even applied for the special grant from the Literature Board so that I could be writer in residence to train Aborigines in writing. Surely the Aboriginals knew or they saw me and they talked, they knew where I came from and what was my background, and E. Fese knew exactly, there was nothing there to hide.

WOSITZKY:
The Track to BralguYour first book of published original stories, 'The Track to Bralgu' in 1978, uses an Aboriginal voice as first person narrator throughout. Is part of the problem that you crossed the line, you went black, and in Australia that's not kosher is it really?

WONGAR:
In that particular book all the characters are Aborigines and all the characters are telling their stories. So I, as the author, stood on a different side. I didn't put my life or my story inside the book. But as the author I picked up the topic and was interested in the topic because I come to this country and I had to a make life in this country and for me it was important to see the history of the country; what's happened to the people who live there. If I ever have a piece of land, if I have a house, if I have a family, I have to know what is the history. It could be said that because one doesn't know history or doesn't know the past one can make mistakes in the future.

WOSITZKY:
A lot of immigrants finish up replicating the culture they came from. You've done the opposite, you've moved deeply into Australian and Aboriginal culture, but your connection, you say in your autobiography 'Dingoes Den', comes from the oral history, the oral epic tales from a Serbian village you came from where there's a long tradition of collecting folk poetry and literature, especially because the Ottoman Empire tried to stamp out the written literature. How did this connection work for you with finding your way into Aboriginal mythology?

WONGAR:
For me it was easier to fit into that system than to fit into the system of academic English and going that way. Besides, I had no choice -- when I arrived to Australia [in 1960] I was 28.

I'm not a scholar, but I am a writer. I had not a word of English, so I had to fall back to that oral tradition because it was my upbringing. Now the Aboriginal oral tradition is [not] brought back from the oral tradition in Europe. But it's an oral tradition and it's like following your trade because you know what is told in oral tradition, it's the same as going to the library and finding the books in the library. You don't have to go to the library if you listen to the tales that are told to you by people.

WOSITZKY:
The first time I came across one of your books it was published under your original Serbian name, Streton Bozic, and it was Aboriginal myths in conjunction with Alan Marshall. Having spent a lot of time in the top end of Australia since then with Aboriginal people, I really understand how much time it takes to get close to the stories, and in that book there's maybe 20 short stories. I'm intrigued about how much time you spent in that area which is near Mandora, across the bay from Darwin, to get close to those stories, to be able to finally write them down.

You said you picked them up from fragments and the rest you used your imagination to build them up. How did you go about picking up those stories such as one called ‘Numul the Fire and Darvin the Fish', which is the story of fire in that country.

WONGAR:
Now, in that particular case [an Aboriginal settlement called Delissaville on the Cox Peninsular], there was not traditional life there, there was not many people from that locality. But most Aborigines who lived there were brought up to Darwin from different parts and they were just to be kept in the jail for some reason and then just disposed of to the Cox Peninsula there.

So these people had enormous history together, [each with] his own mythology, his own story. But most of those peoples’ traditional story telling had eroded, eroded to such an extent that there is barely a record. So, for instance, if I want to research a story about emu and kangaroo I have to go to every person and try somehow to get them, that person, to tell me something about emu and kangaroo. And once that person tells me about emu and kangaroo, about his story, then I hear from another, so I combine all of this research and then I have somehow to synchronise that in one story.

So to make one story and roll out some kind of form and editing that resembles the traditional story. So how successful I am, I'm not sure, probably time will tell. The book has been successful as a publication and I have a connection with local Aborigines -- many of them said, "Oh that is exactly my story."

WOSITZKY:
I came across that story because I put a collection called 'Fruitcake' together in 1981, and included ‘Numul the Fire and Darvin the Fish' and subsequently got the late Aboriginal actor Bob Maza to record it. And one day, under the banyan tree over by the pub at Belyuen, I took over the cassette we'd made and I also took over the book and played it to them.

I know you took the book back for them, but by the time I got there 20 years later the people I spoke to didn't know about the book. So they were very surprised to find their stories in the book. But when I played the story, ‘Numul the Fire and Darvin the Fish' to them the current traditional owner, a woman called Betty Marine said "Yeah, that's right."

What I was confronted with on that visit there to Belyuen was that I'd taken the story from your book, put it in another collection and recorded it with your permission. But at the point of doing that I had no sense that I really needed to ask whoever was the current traditional boss or owner of that story for her permission. And subsequently Betty Marine said "Yeah, you can use that story in your show if you like." But I was confronted at that time with the difference between an Aboriginal sense of who owns a story, as in it's handed down to particular people who are custodians of the story, and our European sense where our ‘dreaming stories’ belong to us all.

Did you find yourself in conflict within that nexus of the two traditions?

WONGAR:
Most of the people at that time when I collected the practicing of that ritual life were already wiped out. And for me, how I got involved with that, copyright at that time was not so important.

WOSITZKY:
So, as in your biography, you see yourself in the tradition of your Serbian forebear Vuk who collected the folk tales so they didn't die.

WONGAR:
Yes, that was important, that wealth of traditional poetry and traditional story telling, and everything survived because he was able to catch [it] just in time. At that time the official policy was to get Aborigines to assimilate, get Aborigines to lose their culture, not to tell any more stories or to publish them.

WOSITZKY:
As well as a need to find the story of this country and identify with the place where you'd come to live, in the opening chapter of ‘Dingoes Den’, your autobiography, you talk about a man called Juburu who saved your life and you say "Would I ever be able to repay a fraction of his effort in caring for me? I've asked myself that question and again and again ever since." Is some of your writing, in a sense, to repay him through your work?

WONGAR:
Well certainly, if it hadn't been for him I would have been eaten by the sand. I was probably as naïve as a European can be when they come to the Australian country. And probably if I knew the history of Australian explorers I would have known how they perished in the desert. But at that time I didn't know anything about the history of any explorers so I...

WOSITZKY:
But you were in Alice Springs, 1960, you had a friend working on the Ord River scheme in the Kimberley and somebody directed you to head north-west through the Tanami Desert with a camel.

WONGAR:
Yes, a man said there's plenty work here, just come and I will have a job for you.

WOSITZKY:
So you headed off into the Tanami with a camel?

WONGAR:
Yes, I asked someone, I said "How do you get to the Kimberley?" with my bad English and everything from the dictionary and the person said "Oh, just ride a camel," -- maybe he had told me that in a joke or something, at that time I took it for real. And the man actually sold me the camel, not only that he advised me to go on the camel. Yes, at that time I had no idea of the desert, for me I looked on the map and for me that stretch, it was like a stretch of countryside. I thought there was always water there, there were villages there, there were people there, full of life -- you could not get lost in Europe so the concept of desert just could not enter my mind.

WOSITZKY:
And how long did it take till you were nearly dead from thirst?

WONGAR:
Actually it was probably the second week when I [was] stuck hard, I stuck hard when the camel I was riding on eat the salt bush and got sick from the salt bush. I didn't know what had happened to the camel, I just panicked and I didn't not know that she had eaten something, it was later that Juburu told me.

WOSITZKY:
So Juburu is a Warlpiri man, he's out in the bush and he finds you nearly dead.

WONGAR:
Yes, yes. He was actually [coming] from the settlement on the other side of the desert to Alice Springs whenever they wanted him put him in the jail and after releasing him from the jail he was back across to the desert to his tribal country.

WOSITZKY:
So he's walking from Alice Springs, same direction as yourself?

WONGAR:
Same as myself and probably he picked up my track and as soon as he picked up my track he knew there was a European fool somewhere who doesn't know anything about that country and he's going to get stuck.

WOSITZKY:
And you walk the rest of the way with him.

WONGAR:
Yes, after he brought me back from that, the hallucination and everything [it] was something like coming back to another life. It was almost like that life which I had before that had perished, something told me that I was dying and I will die if I don't hold onto that man, that kind man who's going to save me. So I was entirely dependent on him and probably I was a burden to him because the man wasn't young and he wasn't in good shape himself.

WOSITZKY:
And he introduced you to the mythology of the land that later has infused so much of your writing?

WONGAR:
Yes, because of my traditional oral tradition and because I knew that people survive holding to that tribal tradition in my old country. So I automatically come to Jubiru(?)knowing that that is my way to survive. And somehow he, later on when we got on the other side and everything and I found a job, he came to hold onto me thinking we owe each other a lot.

Extract from ‘Karan’
"When man journeys through unknown country, trees, like faithful dogs, follow him. They're often seen in sheltered valleys, and never fail to be about a dry river crossing to give him a drink. Trees also hang around large boulders, for times when travelling man stops there to camp and hugs against the warm rock during the cold desert nights. No traveller who knows about trees will lose his way in the bush; the branches can always tell you which way to head on.

No man buries his foot in the ground and spreads roots, for he's on the move, -- the trees thought of that and gave him the spear to hunt for food and let him shape the boomerang from a bent branch. When he want a tree to turn hard, leave your wana, newly made digging stick, in the sun and it will become stone in no time.

Being taller than man and much wiser, trees can always tell of an approaching storm. They sight a cloud as soon as it rises beyond the horizon and rustle their leaves to tell them news. Later on as the willy-willy gallops across the country, whirling a column of dust, trees lash their branches to warn man of the oncoming storm. Cling to a large truck and the branches will sway down to shield you. When old, trees grow even kinder, opening part of their trunk to let birds, animals or men hide in their hollow.

Be kind to the trees and they will bloom into flower for you and attract a flock of honeysuckers and a swarm of bees. Remember, trees are relatives of man, after all."

WOSITZKY:
This sense of water and thirst and the perils of drought run as a theme through the second of the three books you call your nuclear trilogy - the second book being 'Karan'. And by mentioning 'Karan' I'd like to move on to where we originally started with the reasons why you're not read in Australia because in this book 'Karan', Anawari, the central character is an Aboriginal man who's been raised white. He works in the Tribal Research and Assimilation Centre, which is there out in the desert where they capture desert blacks and attempt to program the Dreamtime into a computer. They also work in conjunction with the nearby nuclear testing, which refers to the 1954 British tests in South Australia, and they're testing their Aboriginal captives for positive and negative cells after the blasts.

Now this Tribal Research and Assimilation Centre is a five-storey building shaped like a ‘Y’ and emanating from it are four roads as in a cross, and at the end of each road there's a right-hand road turn. This whole place is representing a huge swastika and at the end of each arm of the swastika there's four Aboriginal camps - one called Menzies, one called McMahon, one called Whitlam and one called Fraser. Is this image far too severe for Australians to handle?

WONGAR:
At that time when I wrote the book it was little known to readers in Australia what happened in central Australia. Even to Judge McKelland who head an inquiry, even he couldn't have reach everything that was there because the British withheld it from him. Now I was told that the man was engaged in digging a pit for a mass grave of Aborigines so nothing of that was heard for almost 50 years.

At that time when I wrote the book I put half of that, mostly fiction based on the historical facts or something. It wasn't very comfortable to [the] British and the British had a lot to say about this to influence decision making in Australia. So my book became very unpopular in England and the books were just moved out there from the shelf and everything so even Macmillan just removed from their stock, the paperbacks never appeared.

WOSITZKY:
Yes, the scenes in it such as going out into the desert, finding an old Aboriginal camp with people virtually fried on the spot round their campfire or in little hollows. Have you seen things like that?

WONGAR:
At that time when I went out to central Australia to do the research there was something called [the] Nuclear Energy Act. That Act stated if you're found in the location of that prohibited zone you can get 20 years imprisonment. You can get also 20 years for trying to pass information that you learnt on the ground to a third person, and you can get 20 years imprisonment if you write anything about what you have seen in the area. So if I was caught at that time I could have been easily sent to 60 years imprisonment, so I would still probably be there, 20 more years to serve.

WOSITZKY:
So is that why you describe yourself walking into there, not driving because the car would give away your presence?

WONGAR:
Yeah, I knew that the car would be probably seen. The only way that you can get there or get out from there was with the help of Aborigines. And I at that time developed a good contact with them.

WOSITZKY:
With a man called Miru?

WONGAR:
Yes, and he and I noticed also that they have those scars and everything, which probably might have come from something and may have something to do with the radiation.

WOSITZKY:

Karan coverIn 'Dingoes Den' you describe a remarkable scene with Miru which is also fictionalised in part in 'Karan' where you've walked right into this nuclear testing zone and he's looking for his wife and his family. He comes back after leaving you at a certain spot, he comes back and said he'd found them dead in a little hollow which, I presume, is like the scene you described in 'Karan', and later on he is with you and he's come to his country to die, and you describe a scene where he just simply seems to walk away a bit and sits down and virtually meditates the departure of his soul from his body. But you don't describe how this affected you to be there?

WONGAR:
That was… that was a scene to absorb, to take in some European's mind because never before have I seen a person who does it himself. Now I come from this culture where you have to fight to survive and even if you drown you'll try to swim as long as you can, whatever happens you have to fight. And the whole oral tradition I was brought up in it teaches you to survive the Ottoman occupation, teaches you to struggle with your land and it never tells you that you have to give yourself up and just [reach] the end.

This was the first time that I was confronting this. The man had reached a condition that he's in and he knows the best way out is that way. Now to go and interfere with that it would be impossible, because the man his mind it was taken too. I could not do anything to prevent that, it's a part of tradition, which probably was going back thousands and thousands of years.

WOSITZKY:
You describe it as a face "filled with a strange calm of a man who was nothing left but his soul. Anawari had seen such serenity only once before on the face of an old man out there in the bush waiting to die." And you've described this as his solution to the pain he's feeling -- the character has found out he's lost the wife and possibly family too in a nuclear blast. And in the book 'Karan', Anawari himself wakes up one morning and he finds on his chest cicatrices in a spiral emanating out of where his heart chakra might be. And he therefore starts his search for his solution to the problem of finding himself working in this place where they're experimenting on Aboriginal people.

His solution isn't armed rebellion or political action, it's a spiritual solution. He finds his country, he dies, he's reborn as a tree and he witnesses the flood that comes and finally washes away this Assimilation Centre, completely wrecks it and all of the people, the scientists that are working there. In the terms of the current problems Aboriginal people and for whites as well in Australia, are you saying that spiritual regeneration is the way ahead?

WONGAR:
Yes, I have that hope and I think at the moment they are in the control of everything. But again we humans are visitors for a period of time and the land is much older than humans and the cultures, like European cultures and other cultures, come in a period of time and that time watches that and then something will survive or something new will grow. We don't have the monopoly of life for ever on earth.

WOSITZKY:
I'd like to now ask you about some of your other experiences as a writer. In 1997 a novel called 'Raki' was published but the published novel was the second manuscript you'd written because the first manuscript you wrote was stolen by the police. Can you tell us about that please?

Wongar's study at Dingoes Den after the police raid in 1988

WONGAR:
One day just police turn up at my property in the country and searched me and searched my bag and everything you know and took me and locked me up and ...

WOSITZKY:
And what was the subject of the book?

WONGAR:
The subject of the book was an Aboriginal dying in a jail. At Monash, where I was writer in residence, those Aborigines coming from the Kimberleys, from Northern Territory, [from] all over Australia for special courses there, so I have a perfect opportunity to get in contact with all of them, let them tell me the stories and everything and combine all those right from the sources, what's happened to the people and their relatives and everything. So it was a really an opportunity that you could not miss. And one day [the police] just came and they searched me and everything, they [were] carrying guns as though I had broke some rules or something, taken a door from the building site or something.

They dragged me through the courts because once I was taken to the prison then they had to justify why they held me in the cell. Eventually they brought a person who was on that demolition site, when there was a court there, to tell her story. And she gave evidence at the court that she had seen me with a car bogged on the site trying to get out of the bog and saw me carrying a plank when I was in the car, that was the plank that I'd put under my wheel, and she stated clearly that she did not see me putting the plank into the car, it was a utility.

What I had in the car actually was five dingoes and prior to coming to that demolition site there was block on the road checking the cars, police on the road, and I had to move out from the dent in the road and to get in the back street to escape the police check because the dingoes at that time were illegal in Victoria and I could have ended up losing all my dingoes in the car. And for that reason I ended up in the demolition site.

WOSITZKY:
So they accused you of stealing a door but took the manuscript?

WONGAR:
They took the manuscript and all my papers and everything, at that time I was really shaken and everything and I had to move from that area because I lived through the war, the Second World War as a little child, so that all you know once you find yourself in the position like that you become frightened and insecure about what's going to happen next.

WOSITZKY:
And so there was outrage in the literary community, 200 Australian writers wrote a petition to the then premier of Victoria, John Cain, demanding that your manuscript be returned. There was no reply whatsoever from the Premier nor from anybody about it and you never got the manuscript back.

WONGAR:
Yes, the matter has never been properly looked into by the state authority, and after that I never had any dealing with the state authorities in Victoria. Once my book was published and I was invited on a special dinner there to some kind of book program or art program and I declined to go there too because it was government-sponsored and I never get any help from the government in my writing or anything like that.

Extract from ‘Raki’
"The dark holds on; it lies like some immense carcass which has collapsed on this little place pressing me to the ground. I can plead or scream, Dark will not budge.

It must be just as bad outside, -- Dark has clamped down on the compound leaning on both sides of the perimeter wall, then stretching further in. Mulga trees and witchety grub bushes -- all gulped by dark.

There was a wide expanse of dry country behind them, but that too has been claimed by the immense beast called Dark. There can hardly be any joy in swallowing sand dunes and gibbers, but they are merely part of the country being gulped. There might be a lonely lizard still out there or a dingo hiding in its burrow, but heartbeats are numbered for us all.

It must be white men who have bred that beast called Dark; bred and groomed. Who else would build a place like this, locked the cell and left for good. I thought there must be a way out; scores of my tribal relatives have departed leaving behind hardly any trace, not even a patch on the concrete floor they slept on. I should have followed them but the chance to do that seems to be eluding me."

WOSITZKY:
If we can just move back in time to the reasons that brought you to Melbourne as different to living up north, you were married to an Aboriginal woman up north and had a couple of kids.

WONGAR:
Yes.

WOSITZKY:
And her name was?

WONGAR:
Djumala.

WOSITZKY:
Djumala. I gather from 'Dingoes Den' that she came from somewhere round the Cox Peninsula across from Darwin. Am I correct there?

WONGAR:
No, that is where I met her. I met her there. She come up from Arnhem Land.

Wongar working at Gove 1968

WOSITZKY:
Now, you last saw your wife and children when one day you were there visiting Darwin and what you describe as a couple of strong men picked you up and virtually press-ganged you onto a plane to Europe and told you to get out, somehow connected with an article that was published by you in Smoke Signals magazine, an Aboriginal Advancement League magazine about the bauxite mining and its destruction of Aboriginal people and their culture and land out at Gove Peninsula in Eastern Arnhem Land.

All of this combined with the raiding of your house and the taking of a manuscript is the sort of things you don't normally hear about Australian literature. You hear about it in terrible communist countries and things like this -- this is shocking information for most of us.

WONGAR:
At that time there was Aboriginal land rights case in Darwin, which I attended on the advice of Alan Marshall who was my mentor. And I wasn't welcome there, especially after the article, and the article wasn't welcome, it was picked up by some other people and was published in New Zealand and in Europe and everything, so it made those mining people a bit uncomfortable. It wasn't a story, it was just factual thing from the field of what was happening.

So for that reason they thought it was nothing to take me to court or to sue me or anything, the best way was to just frighten me off or to make sure that I just ...

WOSITZKY:
So the two men who gave you the ticket and put you on the plane to Europe, do you think they were mining men or police?

WONGAR:
No idea, they gave me only two hours to go to the bank and clear out my account and take the money that I had, the savings that I had and [then] took me and made sure that that the money paid for the ticket and everything. What I knew at that time [was] that I was in no position to challenge them and those men probably could appear again. The other thing was, if I tried to flee to the bush which I could have tried, they would probably be following me sooner or later and then I would bring trouble to my relatives there and friends there, so it was best if I just ....

WOSITZKY:
You felt they weren't playing around?

WONGAR:
No, I think they were serious. Besides, I was in the bush, they could probably knock me any time they liked and I don't think anyone would have noticed or known much about it at all. [They probably would have thought that I was just] a poor humble migrant who has stumbled on difficulties so it would not have been a great loss.

WOSITZKY:
But is there an echo here back to your early days? You said in your biography that by the time you were 18 you'd survived execution three times. My father's a Czech and he says to me Australians haven't got any idea of the horror and fear that you can feel in these times of war. You knew what can happen, you have this sense from Europe that things can get very dangerous for people who speak against the state.

WONGAR:

Yeah, I think probably that my early experience with the father and in the humble village and everything and facing those difficulties and often being persecuted for nothing at all, putting your life in danger, probably made me [more aware]. Maybe I was naïve when I crossed the desert and nearly lost my life in desert, but when it comes to those political dangers, those dangers that you can encounter because of the humans, I was more aware, could sense that there's danger there and you have to back out or you have to try to reach for safety -- whatever the price. And you're not standing there somewhere in Arnhem land or far outback and challenging the people who have far stronger authority and power than you have or can imagine.

WOSITZKY:
So you returned to Australia but instead came to Melbourne and this is [the end of the 60’s], and your friend and mentor Alan Marshall lives here. You take your property called ‘Dingoes Den’, but Djumala, your wife, you never do find her again?

WONGAR:
No, I was hoping that moving down to the south that I could save a bit of money or purchase a bit of land and settle there, and then bring her and the children and everyone, all the friends that I had or had relatives. Aborigines believe in that community.

WOSITZKY:
And is this fear the only reason you stay down south in Melbourne?

WONGAR:
Yes, I thought the area was much safer here and I knew Alan Marshall and knew other people and they thought I could probably write a book, I could write fiction, I could write a bit of imagination there like [at] home. I could shape those facts into the shape that people would not recognise them directly so I would be much safer and my family would be safe as well. But that didn't work, that was very unfortunate.

WOSITZKY:
After 1974 you returned to the Top End for many reasons, but one was to search for her and you didn't find her. Have you any idea what happened to her and the family?

WONGAR:
No, things that I collected or information which I had [was that] she perished apparently during the period of the cyclone.

WOSITZKY:
Cyclone Tracy?

WONGAR:
Yes. So that was the period she was seen last and everything, definitely I think I ... to the answer to what might have, how she may have ended. But there was no trace of children so that was that. At that time I also reached a stage in my life where, after dragging that for years, you had to come to some decision in your life and to make, to put a stop and say ‘Look, life has to go on.’ I could not just bury myself in this thing, which I feel, so I came to the conclusion there was nothing I could do -- [except] as a writer you can write.

WOSITZKY:
But she does return in visions and dreams and you described in 'Dingoes Den' working at Malvern railway station, and how she keeps on appearing on the end of the platform with the children inscribing and drawing on the embankment. You talk about writing the story she's drawing on the back of Vic Rail papers -- invoices. Do these stories become the short stories in the 'Track to Bralgu'?

WONGAR:
Last Pack of Dingoes coverThey are the collection that was called 'Last Pack of Dingoes', I was working on that book, that memory was still very fresh in my mind. I was going through a very difficult time in Melbourne and this memory from the bush was still very strong, hounding me, just searching for answers. So whenever I tried to unload that by writing the story then those visions kept coming so I did not know really if I was doing any good to myself writing at that stage.

WOSITZKY:
And the dingoes, Djumala had introduced you to the idea that dingoes come and live with you as the souls of relatives reincarnated. This theme is strongly in the novel 'Karan'. The first time I visited you in Caulfield, back in 1981, I was brought into a finely appointed European room and there was four or five dingoes in the room which at the time took me aback with a slight apprehension. But you live with dingoes all your life. What do they mean to you?

WONGAR:
Dingoes are very strongly portrayed in Aboriginal literature and art and tradition. Emotionally you are attached to animal and you think that probably you could be out there same as your dead relatives. For this reason, I suppose, that is why the Aborigines adopted that way of thinking and that way of incorporating that philosophy -- that relation between domestic animal and themselves.

Extract from ‘The Last Pack of Dingoes’
"The idea of racial purity came to Waran, the dingo, not long after he reached doghood and was most likely sparked off during a gathering which brought to the party Bull Terriers, Dobermans, Alsatians, and mongrels of all colours and shapes gathered around the single bitch. The crowd barked, growled and occasionally molested one another. Waran had a rear leg badly bitten, one of his ears was ripped and had it not been for his studded collar, his throat would have been cut. "We should do this our way next time." He felt that if he did not do something to restore the traditional way of life a breeding rot would set in and he could be the last dingo left. "Let's go back to Namanama, our bush," he told the bitch. There is a valley high in the ranges covered with scrub whence he was taken as a pup. His old pack had lived there as long as the trees and boulders and without sharing their mating joy with mongrels and losing a limb or an ear if they complained."

This is an edited transcript of a longer interview with B. Wongar by Jan Wositzky.

B. Wongar’s books 'Last Pack of Dingoes' and 'Dingoes Den' were published by Imprint. 'Raki' and 'Karan' were published by Pan Macmillan